Denis Villeneuve makes ugly things almost unbearably beautiful. There are few working filmmakers who use the whole screen better; employ light, sound, and camera movement with more acuity; or are able to create a comprehensive feel to their films in the ways he can. He is a worthy inheritor of a complicated legacy: part of a tradition that includes Ridley Scott (Villeneuve is making a sequel to Scott’s seminal Blade Runner) and David Fincher (and Stanley Kubrick, and the Coen brothers, and Cary Fukunaga, and Michael Bay) — directors who often take the mundane or grotesque parts of life, and create deeply pleasurable aesthetic experiences out of them. The more mundane or grotesque the better. They view it as a challenge: serial killers, child kidnappings, military engagements, panic rooms, border wars, psycho-sexual waking nightmares, Transformers, Facebook, Chinese restaurants, college dorm rooms, daylit Texas bars — it’s all a canvas. They are interested in the painting.
So what happens when they try to make something life-affirming? What happens when they leave their deeply uncomfortable comfort zone? Scott has done this twice, with varying results (Thelma & Louise, A Good Year). Fincher tried once with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie about time made by a filmmaker more concerned with clocks.
Now, Villeneuve plays the heartstrings. Arrival, opening this week, is a big, sweeping, adult sci-fi epic, with movie stars and breathtaking effects. It has a plum, awards-season-friendly release date, with the expectation that it will be this year’s Interstellar, Gravity, or The Martian — popular and acclaimed; a calling card for big-screen entertainment. And like that previous trilogy of films, it uses science fiction to explore the outer reaches of the human spirit. No matter what adversity people face — Mars, broken spaceships, Anne Hathaway — they will ultimately soar.
This is new territory for a director whose films typically take place in deserts, motel rooms, underground tunnels, back road woods, or cities with giant spiders floating over them.
When I spoke with Couper Samuelson, Blumhouse president of feature films, a few weeks ago about the future of horror movies, he bemoaned the lack of opportunities filmmakers had to get multiple reps. The more movies they make, Samuelson’s thinking goes, the better chance they have to transition from technician to master. In an age when most directors seem to take three years between projects, Arrival will mark Villeneuve’s fourth feature released since 2013. By sheer volume alone, he is putting together a significant contemporary cinematic statement. The question is: What is he saying?
It’s easy to mistake the aesthetic exactitude of the Scott-Fincher-Villeneuve school for a lack of humanity. This assumption isn’t helped by anecdotes about the mild acts of creative tyranny (including but not limited to: too many takes, not enough feedback, driving Robert Downey Jr. to store his urine in jars on the set of Zodiac) committed by these directors. Their films are almost too beautiful — frames composed down to the exact placement of a shot glass on a table — to be representational art. But they regularly make films about real people in real places going through real drama. And these filmmakers have a lot to say about the world, they just speak in a language of symbol, atmosphere, and subtext.
In 2014, Villeneuve told Film Comment, “There are always different kinds of anxieties throughout history. But right now there’s something more definite about it. There’s a possibility, a real possibility, that we are facing a wall. This is something that I see in children, how they look at the future in a very bleak way. And we have always, in the past, relied on technology to save us, and there comes a time when it’s very oppressive.”
Since his English-language debut with Prisoners, Villeneuve, now 49, has been staring at the wall. His films take place in a land of wolves. Villeneuve’s protagonists move through life in a content dream — Hugh Jackman’s suburban dad in Prisoners, Emily Blunt’s FBI agent in Sicario, Jake Gyllenhaal’s drowsy teacher in Enemy — until something rips at the fabric of their lives — a kidnapping, a violent drug bust, seeing someone who looks identical to them in a film. A figure comes into their lives and changes it, leading them into a darker place, sometimes playing a con on them. Villeneuve works in descents.
Sicario is a domestic war film, Enemy is Vertigo with Gyllenhaal as both Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, and Prisoners explores the psychological and moral realities of torture porn and revenge fantasy. No matter the genre, Villeneuve infuses dread into every scene, into every detail — from the dust bunnies floating in Blunt’s drab apartment, to the Atget woods and unrelenting rain that soaks Prisoners.
“Whenever I have to make a decision that’s connected to a feeling inside myself, I’m always afraid of not being in control. I question a lot whether we’re really in control of ourselves,” Villeneuve told Film Comment. This is the key to his — and Fincher’s, the Coen brothers’, and Scott’s — style. He may take some kind of delight in watching the world fall down around his characters, but they are in control. I’m sure they happen, but it’s hard to imagine happy accidents on their sets. They are too good to need luck.
So what does a Denis Villeneuve movie about love look like? How does a control freak let something soar? Villeneuve’s first language is French, and he has spoken in the past about how language creates character — he sees himself as a more serious person in his native language, while a bit clumsy and inarticulate in English. Arrival is, among other things, a film about language. These are broad strokes of the plot: aliens arrive on Earth in giant oval ships; Amy Adams, an expert linguist, is asked to help make contact. To say any more about the movie would start to dull the wonder of the film, and that’s not fair. “Wonder,” in the late-period Terrence Malick sense of the word, is the genre Villeneuve is working in.
Shooting with Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) instead of Roger Deakins (Prisoners, Sicario, many Coen brothers movies), Villeneuve lets this film off the leash more than any of his previous works. There are walks through meadows, beautiful homes, and relatively kind people. At one point, Amy Adams’s colleague, played by Jeremy Renner, comments on the beautiful Montana landscape surrounding the giant spaceship. It’s probably the first time someone in a Villeneuve movie was happy with their surroundings.
There are still some hallmarks of Villeneuve’s worldview — the architecture that surrounds the characters seems to be closing in on them; there are still wolves in this fairy tale. But it is an altogether more affirmative film. This makes sense, not only for the filmmaker but the stage. Villeneuve told Deadline that he “wanted to take a vacation from darkness.” And despite everything that happens in the movie, it is ultimately a hopeful one. It is about the power of communication and connection, that there is a language for everyone and everything. There is one kind in Arrival, but for Villeneuve that language is the movies. It is something you and I, and almost everyone else can understand. It is something he can control.
According to the director, “Arrival is a film more about bridges than walls.” Perfect timing.